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Thin elderly at greater health risk

Monday September 21 6:08 PM EDT

By E.J. Mundell

SAN FRANCISCO, Sep 21 (Reuters) -- Elderly people with low body weight have a higher risk for hospitalization and death compared with heavier individuals of similar age, according to a study.

The very thin elderly ``may be at as much risk or more risk'' for serious illness than even the very overweight elderly, according to Dr. Patrick Fahey of Ohio State University in Columbus. Fahey, one of a team of researchers, presented the findings Saturday at the Scientific Assembly of the American Academy of Family Physicians, held last week in San Francisco.

In an interview with Reuters Health, Fahey noted that for most age groups, increases in body mass index (computed using a formula based on weight and height) tend to trigger decreases in overall health.

However, he believes that may not always be the case among elderly populations.

The Ohio researchers examined data collected on over 7,000 individuals over 70 years of age, surveyed in 1989-1990 by the National Center for Health Statistics.

They found that elderly individuals placing in the bottom 10% in terms of body mass index accumulated more hospital visits, more hospital admissions, and more hospital stays, compared with their heavier peers. They also found that those individuals with the lowest body mass had 60% to 70% more visits with their physicians compared with subjects with average body mass.

This discrepancy was not linked to underlying illnesses such as heart disease, cancer, or diabetes, Fahey noted. After controlling for these types of chronic disease, thin, generally healthy individuals still used up more healthcare resources than did heavier subjects, he said.

Perhaps even more surprising was the finding that death rates among the over-70s seemed to decrease with increasing weight. The Ohio investigators found that, among individuals free of underlying chronic disease, those with the highest body mass had the 2-year lowest death rate of any weight group in the study.

The study findings do not necessarily imply that ``being fat is good,'' Fahey told Reuters Health. However, he said that when working in elderly populations, physicians ``need to be aware that these patients who are below-average weight may have some increased health risks.'' He said the exact reasons behind this association remain largely unknown. ``We've uncovered an association, but not causative factors,'' he explained.